The great plague that devastated England in the mid-14th century wiped out entire villages and filled the streets of London with cartloads of bloated corpses. The relevant statistics are difficult to gauge accurately, but estimates are that from a population of about 6 million people in 1300, as many as four million are thought to have died from the outbreak of bubonic plague that hit England in the 1340s (Borsch, 2005). All of Europe was similarly affected, with as much as 45 percent of the continent’s population dying from the Black Death in less than a decade (Borsch). There were other outbreaks throughout the last quarter of the 14th century, and the plague continued to threaten England well into the 15th century (Borsch). To make matters worse, a peasant tax revolt broke out in England in 1381, which ended in King Richard II being dethroned.
The plague had numerous cultural consequences in England. The loss of French speakers, particularly those who could teach it, led to the rise of Middle English, the language that gives Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales such richness. As well, traditional notions of authority, both temporal and spiritual, were being challenged during Chaucer’s lifetime. A crisis of confidence arose from corruption in the government and the church. The holy men whose authority was supposed to have come directly from God were no more protected from the
Black Death than anyone else. These were the circumstances in which Chaucer wrote The
Canterbury Tales, a bawdy and irreverent reaction to a world that had been shaken right to the roots of its most fundamental beliefs. As Jerry Ellis argues in Walking to Canterbury, “Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales to reflect England in an era that was steeped in the inescapable threat of the plague” (Ellis, 2003).
The Black Death was a highly formative experience for Chaucer. His family inherited money and property from relatives that had died in the plague, which struck England five times during his lifetime. He first observed the plague “in 1348, when he was between five and eight years old. The putrid smell of the thousands of rotting and burning bodies permeated London, and just beyond Chaucer’s window, people collapsed on the street” (Ellis, 2003). It’s difficult to gauge the precise effect such an experience would have had on a boy of Chaucer’s age, but it surely left a deep impression, one which he expressed brilliantly, the only writer (evidently) in England to have done so. Chaucer used the experience to write about an England in which people sought absolution for their sins and to unburden themselves through the telling of tales.
Chaucer’s use of the word “pestilence” is generally regarded as addressing a blight of both body and soul and, as such, can be seen as a response to the cynicism that arose from the horrors that characterized the age. “Pestilence, traditionally conceived of as the result of the first fall and also the cause of subsequent symbolic falls, strains the tension between civic duty and self-preservation” (Leavy, 42). Interestingly, The Canterbury Tales is the only book from the period that specifically takes place during the plague (Leavy, 43). His only direct references to the plague are largely concentrated in “The Pardoner’s Tale.” In it, the greedy, self-interested revelers are brashly seeking out death. It is a largely negative portrayal of people behaving at their worst during a time of plague, a reflection of the widespread response to the pressures under which people lived in Chaucer’s time.
We learn in “The Pardoner’s Tale” that the doctor has cynically benefited from the widespread misery and death, which is unconscionable and inexcusable, yet common. Leavy muses that “Chaucer’s doctor is probably no worse than average in his profession for having benefited ‘in pestilence,’” (Leavy, 44). In this particular tale, we learn that, “For gold in phisik is a cordial; Therefore he lovede gold in special” (Chaucer, 21). As such, it is not surprising that Chaucer singles out medical men of his day for criticism. They represented yet another group that responded to the plague by obeying their basest instincts. “People flocked to doctors for advice on preventing the disease. The physicians urged them to avoid contact with the sick or to hold their breath when around them. Other doctors, charging hefty fees, got rich from advice they knew was worthless” (Ellis, 2003).
Of course, doctors had no more control over circumstances than did the church or the crown. For Chaucer, the ministrations of authority figures, impotent though they were, represented a desperate and futile attempt to restore the natural order of things, to overcome plague, revolution and other manifestations of chaos. “In the ‘Pardoner’s Tale,’ setting out to murder death is a gesture meant to bring pestilence within moral order. Death, however, cannot be compassed. It is from another place – the world in which humankind does not figure and can only impose itself for a time” (McKoff & Schildgen, 12). “The Pardoner’s Tale” ultimately brings us back to Chaucer’s notion of pestilence as representing a moral death. “What the rioters actually find under the tree is not, of course, the plague, but their own moral death. Their greed and narcissism ultimately are their undoing, as they eventually kill each other over gold. “They find death as the wages of sin…” (McKoff & Schildgen, 12).
Yet, despite the unimaginable terror of his time, Chaucer’s work manages to maintain a cheeriness and optimism. After the ravages of the Black Death, the survivors experienced an exhilaration, which makes the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales so memorable. “The Pardoner’s Tale” may be a sobering story, a reminder of man’s vulnerability and moral deficiency, yet “There is not a trace of morbid feeling in his lines, which still glow for us with all the freshness of immortal youth. The sadness and misery of the times in which he lived, and his own personal misfortunes, which must have been many, seem never to have dimmed the clearness of his vision, never to have depressed his spirit…” (Lounsbury, 223). After all, in Chaucer’s time, people thought that they were “looking upon the wide ravages of pestilence and war, that the opening of the seven seals had begun and the kingdom of heaven was at hand” (Lounsbury, 223).
The threat of divine retribution was always nearby in Chaucer’s day. It is interesting to consider the role the church played in Chaucer’s day. In spite of the catastrophic events that preceded the writing of The Canterbury Tales, the sanctity of the church and the desire to seek absolution for sins persisted. Criticism of the church’s greed and hypocrisy didn’t stop individuals from seeking God. Chaucer’s pilgrims engage in a kind of informal confession, sharing in each other’s humanity. In the end, their journey to Canterbury is about self-discovery as much as it is about penance and salvation.
Borsch, Stuart J. The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study. Austin, TX:
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Ellis, Jerry. Walking to Canterbury: A Modern Journey Through Chaucer’s Medieval England.
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Koff, Leonard and Schildgen, Brenda. The Decameron and the Canterbury Tales: New Essays
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Leavy, Barbara F. To Blight With Plague: Studies in a Literary Theme. New York, NY: New
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